Thursday, May 18, 2017

mike's kitchen {crafted by the seasons}


Upon arriving on Washington Island I was greeted by friendship and a familiarity of welcomed sights beheld only six months earlier. Quickly I found myself in my kitchen and again I was met with the familiar; with the sort of comfort that transforms a house into a home. Although it is only my second year in this place it has become part of who I am. And as I am shaped by it, I too shape it.

The restaurant's opening day fast approaching and I feel comforted by this place and eager for dining service to begin. With little wasted time conversations about plant seeds and harvest schedules become routine. The hotel's garden is one of the many prides of my kitchen. Sitting at just under two acres it is diverse enough to meet the vast majority of our produce needs. To state that our garden team is proficient and motivated, would sell them short. The quality of their produce speaks for itself.  The countless hours they work are fuel for the passion that is embodied in the restaurant.  Other local providers are contacted as well,  it is the bringing together of a supply of products with striking character.

I am humbled by the sourcing of our food, in the restaurant I am involved in this on a very personal level. The land is turned, a seed is planted, it grows; a plant is harvested, delivered, cleaned, prepared, ordered, and served.  Every carrot, and every piece of parsley lived this cycle for months or weeks. It took diligence and respect to achieve this. This reverberates in my bones. Every cut of beef to every portion of chicken had parents.  Then they were slaughtered, and partitioned into New York strip steaks, chicken tenders, or pork chops. This is nothing new, but the understanding of the events and routines has become disconnected from what one may consider a typical dining experience. The last time you ate a meal, did you consider how old the vegetable was when it was pulled from the earth? Did you ponder the hands that pulled it?

A round white dinner plate is a canvas holding unlimited potential. It can be painted in any countless number of flavors, textures, aromas, and colors. This is how I look at a plate; considering the developing dynamics waiting to be unleashed. I often find myself thinking about the process that leads these items to me.  As chef I am tasked with skillfully preparing plates that please the senses. Cast a known item into a new light. The volume of creative expression is endless. Kitchen days are long, but it is a labor of love and expression. I find my work fulfilling and satisfying. With that said, my work is only a piece to a puzzle that must come together for a dinner service to run smoothly; from growing seeds and livestock nursing; to clean plates and artful presentations. It all has to come together. The goal of this, the culmination of this, is to present a lovely dinner to you: my guest.

Consider this an invitation. The next time a meal is presented; contemplate. Where did it come from? From what land was it pulled? From what region did it walk? Who crafted it into what it is now? How did you come to be sitting before it? It is an impressively vast story. Involving continuous effort, communication, expression, and devotion. Containing many more characters than one may think.  It is nothing short of amazing that so many hands can come together to produce something so intriguing and exciting. 


{Mike Hofmann is chef at Hotel Washington and Studio on Washington Island in Door County Wisconsin}

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Tuesday, May 16, 2017

you are here! {crafted by the seasons}


When looking at a map, or directional signage of any kind, the first point of interest is always to identify where you are.  It is the only way to determine which direction to take next.  But sometimes that little arrow accompanied by the simple words you are here is actually an invitation to stop and stay a while, to explore, here, first before moving on to the next destination.  That is what today’s offering is all about, a little invitation to stay a while with us, here, in our corner of the upper Midwest.  

The American Midwest, conventionally, 12 states; Ohio, Indiana, Michigan, Illinois, Wisconsin, Missouri, Kansas, Nebraska, Iowa, Minnesota, South Dakota and North Dakota; is one of four geographic regions that comprise the country as defined by the US Census Bureau.  Okay, technicalities out of the way, you are basically in the middle, of everywhere.  And although there is much sameness to be found here, there is rich diversity as well.  If traveling from any one border of the region to another you will encounter mile after mile of endless prairie and vast farmland both under a sky that seems to consume it all.  But you will also pass though lush forests, rolling hills, and lake after lake after lake.  Eventually you will come to a body of water that you will mistake for an ocean and you will wonder how it is possible that you have seen so much.  Winters are harsh here and summers, although hot and muggy, are glorious.  We live for those three months in the middle of the year when life proves itself again and we are renewed.  Life here is based on the turn of the calendar and the manner that the land responds to it.

My here is the tiny county of Boone in far northern Illinois.  We border the Wisconsin state line on our north, just sneaking into the area know as the upper Midwest.  Boone County was settled in the 1830s and named for the famed frontiersman Daniel Boone; it remains as it was then, largely rural and agricultural.  We are in corn and soybean country here, but in between are unique gems that give this place a special character.  Among them are two museums, an organic herb farm, a winery, a number of organic CSA (community supported agriculture)and sustainable farms, a seasonal apple orchard that draws thousands each season, a number of antique shops and a zoo.  Boone County is unassuming in its uniqueness; each of these places nestled into the land waiting to be discovered again and again.  Living in Boone County has been an invitation to me to stop and stay awhile and it is the place that taught me that discovery is all around us.

Five and a half hours north of us, including a ferry ride, is Washington Island.  It sits seven miles from the northeastern tip of Wisconsin’s Door Peninsula in Lake Michigan.  This place is here for Mike.  This twenty-three square mile island is the largest in a small chain that marks the entrance into Green Bay from Lake Michigan.  The waters off the island’s shore are notoriously and historically treacherous, the straight became known to late eighteenth century explorers as Deaths Door, because of the vast number of ships that the waters claimed. The legend subsequently gave its name to the county and Peninsula, Door.  Today the passage can be safely made in about forty minutes on the Washington Island Ferry Line. The Island meets you with a setting that is lush and simple. It has a decidedly rural feeling, complimented by thick woods and of course stunning waterfronts.  The term 'island time' is not a quip here.  This place truly invites, and in a sense forces, one to slow down.  No reason to drive fast, there is not that far to go.  Walking and biking on the roads is common.  It is as if on any given day there is exactly the right number of things to see, and the perfect amount of time in which to see them.  There is not a feeling that you have to squeeze everything in, there is just the simple and pleasing experience of discovering what is around you.  

Among the lovely places to find on Washington Island is the Hotel Washington and StudioThe hotel offers eight guest rooms, a yoga studio and a seasonal farm-to-table restaurant, which during peak season sources much of its fresh fare from its own farm garden.  Icelandic immigrant, Ben Johnson and his wife Effie constructed the historic inn in 1887 and operated it for forty-two years.  Situated under grand oaks on Detroit harbor there is a simple idealism here that perfectly reflects the atmosphere of the island on whole.  There is peace here.  It is a place to renew.  And for Mike it has been a place to discover.

Just as the hidden gems of Boone County have offered discovery to me, so has the kitchen at the Hotel Washington been Mike’s introduction to the ever-rotating variety of the upper Midwest.  And we hope, now that you know where we are, you will stop and stay awhile.  

Mike will be back on Thursday with some thoughts on the kitchen.

With gratitude,

Follow the story here

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

the universe on a paper plate {crafted by the seasons}


My husband and I both grew up camping.  He, a Midwest native would travel each summer with his family of eight and his aunt’s family of seven; they would set out in two station wagons each towing a pop-up camper.  They visited the Grand Canyon, Yellowstone National Park, the Ozarks; they went to amusement parks and dozens of other destinations.  They covered all of these miles without air conditioning or seatbelts or XM Radio.  He earned his lifelong nickname on one of these trips and still references dozens of stories that trigger the illumination of that special light behind his eyes. 

For my family camping was less about travel.  We lived in the Pacific Northwest, our back yard was a national forest.  One had only to travel to the doorstep to be immersed in a natural wonder.  For the better part of one year we camped on my parents wooded land while my father built a small house with the help of a local contractor; we lived in a VW camper van and a couple of tents.  My parents relocated from Southern California to Southern Oregon via Seattle in the late 1970s; for them living in the outdoors was more than a dream; it was a calling.  We camped up and down the coastline traveling between north and south.  Travel for us was always on familiar routes to familiar destinations.  Life was its own campground.  As my three siblings and myself grew older we ventured out more, to wooded sites in the lower Siskiyous and the sand dunes of the central Oregon coast.  We always slept in a tent, or outside. 

I don’t have the same kind of sparkling memories that my husband does.  I actually didn’t realize until I was much older how blurred were our lines of inside and out.  It wasn’t until a visit home last summer that I discovered that that wild ‘back yard’ was public land.  Sometimes we don’t know the significance of a thing in the face of its familiarity.  It wasn’t until I was much older and had lived in other areas of the country for a long time that I realized how that wild place had formed me; that it is in my bones.  I think such a thing is true for all of us; we are made of the place where we were formed.  And it calls to us.  Not in whispers, but in resonance. 

My husband and I take our own family camping now; we go a lot.  Camping for me now is about travel and it is also about stepping into the natural world.  It is the thing that brings me the most perspective.  Part of my quest for local appreciation was to find a favored regional camping destination.  One of the things I have long found captivating about our region of the upper Midwest is the feeling that there is so much to be discovered.  This place has taught me that if you keep your eyes open you will find lovely things in the most unexpected places; that the world is interesting no matter where we find ourselves.  Indeed, the world is more interesting to me now than perhaps it has ever been. 

I want my children to learn this; that the world is interesting no matter where they may find themselves.  And in truth it seems that the more I seek to teach them this, the more I learn it myself. 

We have found a favored family camping spot.  Just a little more than four hours north of our home, on Wisconsin’s well-loved Door Peninsula is Peninsula State Park, and we opened our camping season there this past weekend.  Early May in northern Wisconsin has its own character; it is bursting with almost.  It was almost warm enough to be comfortable and the buds on the trees and undergrowth were almost ready to unfold.  It was lovely in its own raw way, but I couldn’t help feeling the anticipation of what it will be in another month.  Lush and much more green, warmer; more comfortable for my body and eye. 

And then, ah, and then…

My daughter approached me with a small collection on a paper plate.  She and her brothers had spent the morning exploring the underbrush at the perimeter of our campsite and what they found astonished me.  They found life and color, tiny buds and moss in four different colors.  All of a sudden a new reality was present.  Although the broad view of this place still mostly resembled winter, seemingly unable to make an offering of real beauty, in an instant this tiny collection proved my perception wrong.  Below everything we look at are things we must look for to see. 

I almost felt ashamed of my lack of vision, of course, of course, there was so much more to see, I had sent them looking for it.  And they showed me. 

I am thankful to this place, my Midwest home, for teaching me to see.  It taught me to see where I am from; it has taught me to appreciate significance beyond the familiar.  Living here has shown me appreciation for the seasonal patterns we follow and the way we pattern ourselves around them.  It is still teaching me to see, to appreciate, what is actually in front of me; not what I pine for or expect.

This is the place that my children’s bones will long for, the land that formed them.  I hope that they will have sparking memories and yet be unsure where to find the blurry borders of inside and out. 

With gratitude,

Follow the story here 

Monday, May 8, 2017

reflections from the road {crafted by the seasons}

For this week's Crafted by the Seasons offering we thought we would share a little about ourselves. Mike is up first today, I will be back on Wednesday.


I found myself leaving the west coast once again. Traveling from southern Oregon to Washington Island Wisconsin is no short trip. With over two-thousand miles to drive, and the entirety of my possessions in the back of my truck I set out. Quickly my thoughts committed to the endeavor and the ambition to seek out the unfamiliar. Feelings of excitement percolated as my home state’s border approached and then receded from sight. Adventure was on the horizon.

Idaho: excitement was discovered in the valleys and peaks of the Sawtooth wilderness.

Wyoming: I was overcome by majesty and amazement in the Grand Tetons.  One can not feel powerful next to such titans. One can only be.

South Dakota: peace was experienced in the Badlands.  Never before had I been so near a beast so great and felt no threat.

As the visual wonders wound down, reflections of the observed spectacles permeated my mind. Endless painted hills conscripted to life in vivid tones of blood red, forest green, sun yellow, and muddy royal purple. Pitch black butte silhouettes on a horizon backdrop cast aflame by radiant sunset. Colossal evergreen groves to vast plateaus of Sagebrush. In those moments, in those places, I couldn’t help but feel as though every detail, every shred of color, and every faint whisper was there just for me. Despite many days of travel into unknown lands, one unmistakable feeling never left me.
I was Home.
As I arrived on the island for my second year, that feel met me again. It is fueled by the journey that lead me here. As I prepare my kitchen for the season ahead I feel engaged by the potential of the unknown, excitement for the possibilities that it may bring, and a vast appreciation for the world around me.



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Wednesday, May 3, 2017

one season at a time {crafted by the seasons}

Welcome to {Crafted by the Seasons} a writing project, a meditation on place, a practice in experience.   

For nearly three years I have been reflecting in writing on my experience living in the rural upper Midwest.  More than anything it has been the character of the land and the pattern of the seasons that have framed my view of this place and my life within it. But this was a process.  I am a transplant from the Pacific Northwest and although I have lived in a number of places, it was not until I had been settled her for sometime that I began to understand how deeply my perception of the natural world is always held in reference and in contrast to those wild places that framed and cradled my youth.  It became clear to me that if I was going to be fully content living in this new place I must commit to seeking out its raw and natural beauty, its sublime experience. My eyes of beholding would need to behold more deeply and through new lenses.  

I began this blog as a kind of repository for that search and it has served me.  I have found beauty by looking for it and perhaps more often, by mere accident.  I have discovered a fascination for the intrepid power of nature, from the oak tree to the dandelion; rising and diminishing at the direction of the seasons and their wielding of wind, water and temperature.  By this, the land is formed, and by this, our experience of the land takes meaning. Seasons in the Midwest are a kind of ritual rotation.  Each one a pattern of familiar newness carrying the anticipation of what it will bring this time around.

This series is inspired by two things; my own fascination with this patterning of life and land by the seasons and the arrival of my brother Mike Hofmann who moved to northern Wisconsin last year to run the kitchen at Hotel Washington, a historic inn and dedicated farm-to-table restaurant on Washington Island in Door County.   We have long shared similar affinities for discovery and the natural world, and for crafting something from them, but our paths have been very different.  Their unexpected convergence in a new region of our country has meant more than family connection; it has spurred new inspiration.

Year after year I have waited for the weather to bring the relief of green buds and soft earth and the first things that can be taken from and put into the ground.  I have watched the changes in the air bring change back to the earth, and lamented. And I have lived to greater and lesser degrees inside and outside as dictated by the same forces.  But watching Mike operate a seasonal kitchen in which all of his fare is sourced from within three hundred miles has given me a new understanding of what it means to actually live and eat according to what nature offers you.  It has given context to the labor of those who live and harvest by these patterns. And a new context to the patterns of my own experience.   

Crafted by the Seasons will be a weekly offering.  During the next six months you will hear from both of us; each sharing from our own window onto the heartland.  We envision photo essays, regional features, reflections and recipes.  We have a vision for our direction, but ultimately we are casting a course for discovering what the seasons have in store for us this time around.  

Cheers & gratitude,

Jo & Mike

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Thursday, April 27, 2017

The Badlands, or on the Way

{As we begin planning our course for this year's summer adventure I am drawn back to last year's trip.  Thousands of miles revealed so much more than mere and intimate landscape; and there are a few stories yet to tell...}

Wild territories remind us and recall us to the unexamined territories in our own hearts and minds; and they open up places within us that we don’t even know that are there.
                                                                                       ~   John O’ Donohue

It is prairie out here; some farms, some cattle and the road is smooth and straight; but it rises and falls gently with the land it traverses, every mile we pass similar to the one before and at once fresh and new.  I love new territory, I love the anticipation of a place not experienced before, and I love the feeling that I will discover something, even if it has already been gazed upon by a thousand or a million people before me.  
Our trip was to last thirty days, during which time we were to drive what amounted to more than 6,000 miles from our home in far northern Illinois to my home state of Oregon, down through California, almost to its southern tip where we would make the turn east and back to the Midwest.  It was a journey of five; myself, my husband and our three children, ages six and under.  Every night was scheduled and there was not a hotel among them, withholding the few nights we would spend with family, we would camp every other.  So in actuality it was a journey of six, the five of us and our pop-up camper Ollie, which was lovingly named for my late and intrepid grandmother. Badlands National Park in the southwestern reaches of South Dakota was our first destination.   As a girl from the Northwest who unexpectedly settled in the Heartland there are places in between that I have seen with some regularity and others that have been missed altogether; South Dakota was new territory.  

We set out early, on an early July morning.  Most of our first day is spent on familiar stretches of interstate 90 in Wisconsin and Minnesota, crossing hundreds of comfortable miles.  We reach the South Dakota border late in the afternoon, storm clouds and restless children on the horizon.  Four states in a single day we announce, not bad!  Of course the landscape never changes suddenly at state borders, but the crossing always announces a familiar anticipation that newness is at last afoot.  We camp our first night in Sioux Falls, feeling content and accomplished.
I like to travel with a road atlas, my husband is more of a gps man, so together we always know where we are, or presumably at the very least, where we are going.  However neither of these affinities would protect us from the debacle of our second morning.  So eager, on day two, to get back on the highway, we fail to get fuel before the onramp; and after merging into the stream of westward traffic we quickly discover that we may not have enough to reach the next opportunity.  One of the great things about traveling our country by road is that the perception that everything is readily available from the interstate is actually false and, that, we find, is one of the beautiful things about South Dakota.  So by the chance aid of a timely highway sign we end up in the tiny, and never otherwise would have seen town of Montrose.   

Such are my favorite exits from the roadway, heading off in an unplanned direction and wondering if you are going to find what you are looking for, and when you do and it is always a little bit of a surprise and always a little bit exactly what you expected.  As we pull into Montrose, some ten miles from the interstate, we breathe a mutual sigh of relief at the archaic looking gas station on the main corner of town. Our second thought; I hope it’s open...And it is.  

My husband goes inside, no pay at the pump here, and emerges with a list of can’t miss local places given to him by the clerk.  If only we had time to visit can’t miss local places; this accidental visit to an out of our way little town makes us wish that we could.  Makes us wish that we could abandon our month long schedule and just wander small roads with no particular destination.  As we leave town, gas tank full, and attempt to make our way back to the interstate we talk about the pleasure of planning a trip with no plan at all, a trip that is just time set aside to explore accidental destinations.  
We set out again and find our way back to the interstate with only a mild detour, re-joining the westward migration.  I notice repeatedly our fellow highway travelers.  Trucks towing fifth-wheels and tiny sedans with New York license plates, packed so the windows are full.  I think years behind me, to college and soon thereafter, when that was me, and I think about all we have in common on the road; setting out to see something, to arrive some place.  I think about the miles we are crossing and how they have been crossed by multitudes of peoples by different means for so long.  

I read aloud the description of the geologic formations in Badlands National Park and I think about how lucky we are to have been alive to be witness to them.  In a total of one-million years they will have come and gone, as the National Park Service website says, that is pretty short in geologic time.  I wonder at all of the vast formations of the earth that came and went without our knowing, without our seeing, as if our human perception of a place gives it some significance.  

We spend the day driving, hundreds of mils through a softly varying landscape and I wonder what will be revealed in another million years hence, what beauty would we be in the midst of long after our privileged time.   Gradually it settles on me that we are mere transients here and all of the wonders we revel at are not grand products designed for our reveling; but, that we have met, design and observer at a mere moment in the infinite process of change.  Such is the journey, always in light of the destination, but separate altogether and sometimes more grand and more worthy.
We arrived at Badlands National Park in the late afternoon. We purchase our system pass from the ranger at the gate, anticipating the many more parks and places we will enter and visit.  The entering of a park is somewhat like the entering of any new territory, the land does not change suddenly at its borders, there is always something grand and beautiful on the side from which you are entering, but the border itself elicits anticipation and suddenly you are looking in a new way.  Immediately there are signs for wildlife and we were looking; arrows pointing in the direction of vistas and we are looking, other visitors looking and we look out in the direction they gaze.  

The campground is simple, but elegant in its spare arrangement of modest picnic shelters set against a jagged backdrop.  It is all we need for our single nights stay, and indeed it is all we would need for ten nights.  It is hot and travelers large and small are restless.  We set camp quickly, and head back into the adventure.  
The Badlands were so named by ancient peoples because they were bad lands to pass through and indeed there is something wildly rough and intimidating about them and yet something delicate and wondrous about them too. Perhaps it is knowing that they were shaped by wind and water, that their sandy contours change almost daily, but this is false comfort. They feel almost breakable, and then appear the signs beware of Rattlesnakes, and you feel the hot wind on your face and look down over unmarked and unbarricaded ledges and you remember that nature and time are always to be respected.    

Although hints of their strangeness meet you upon approach, once inside its heart, this landscape is a consuming and otherworldly place.  The formations seem to rise sharply from the land, but really they are the remains of what has been worn away by the accomplices of time; they are the strange arrangements of what has been left behind, of what is still here.  
We spend a number of hours hiking and climbing among the formations, the pathways are general suggestions.  The views change quickly, sometimes offering broad open vistas that reveal the soft prairie territory that reaches out beyond the strangeness, and sometimes opening only enough to entice us onward.  The farther in we go the more immersed we become; fascinated, but respectful.  As the shadows grow, we too begin to grow weary from the heat and approaching hunger; it is time to retreat.  We travel the winding road back to the campground from Castle Trail; taking in the last views of the day under golden light.
The campground is full and active, but in a pleasant and comfortable way.  Comfortable for eating and sitting and letting children run about; comfortable for chatting in low tones and thinking about what is next.  As night falls the immensity of the sky becomes very present and the darkness as consuming as the formations were in the light. It is this darkness that fills our imaginations and eventually ushers us to sleep.

Indeed the Badlands have enticed us onward.  Onward they brought us from our rural home and onward farther they send us.  After hiking and playing and eating, sleeping and star gazing it is time for us to depart.  We leave in the morning heat, making our slow way back to interstate 90 and again, joining the constant westward movement.  

With gratitude,

Thursday, April 6, 2017

The Green Grass

{Written last Saturday}

The grass is green now, and ready for running. It is ready for new and vibrant steps, for the grazing of birds building new life.

The dew is frozen on the grass this morning, but the sun is warm and the frozen drops soften before my eyes.  From every direction comes the sweet calls of newness.  

And I sat with my old friend one last time in the sun and grass and fresh, perfect air.  

With gratitude (and a sad, sad heart),

Nash, 2003 - 2017